Drugs Kill People: But Not Very Many of Them
by Brian C. Bennett

Illegal drugs are dangerous and kill people, so that's why they are illegal, right? Well, maybe not. After the recent death of a professional ballplayer was linked to his use of ephedra, the cry went out across the land: we must ban this dangerous substance. That got me thinking, and as usual led me to do a little research.

You might think that there would be some kind of logical process applied to determine exactly the point at which the relative "danger" of a given substance would cross a threshold and consequently be declared illegal. I thought that perhaps I could uncover some part of the truth by reading the materials published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. They have been claiming for years that "drugs kill people" and have managed to finagle an annual budget of over $20 billion to "protect Americans from the scourge of illegal drugs." I'm not necessarily claiming that the ONDCP is prone to exaggeration, but I'd like to share what I've discovered about drug deaths in America.

The ONDCP annual Drug Control Strategy provides a table * of drug-induced deaths that shows an increase in the number of such deaths from 7,101 in 1979 to 16,926 by 1998. Starting in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control adopted the new international standards for coding causes of death, so ONDCP tells us that the new standard is not directly comparable to the old standard. The good news though, is that the CDC provides an on-line interface into their databases of more than 20 years of mortality data, which proved more than adequate for exploration.

First, though, I had to find a definition of which causes of death are included in the ONDCP's figures. The way the data is usually presented, one would be inclined to believe that all 214,575 of those folks died from using illegal drugs. As it turns out, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, the footnotes on the table of death in the 2003 Drug Control Strategy revealed that there are actually a wide variety of deaths included in the total, most of which, as it turns out, have nothing to do with illegal drugs.

Using the codes provided in the ONDCP tables, and the on-line mortality database at CDC, I learned that in actuality, only 44,727 of those deaths over a 20-year period were due to the use of illegal drugs. As you might expect, most of those were due to accidental overdoses of heroin or cocaine. In fact, during those 20 years, only 22,735 were caused by heroin, and only 15,551 were due to cocaine use. Together, heroin and cocaine accounted for nearly 86 percent of all deaths due to illegal drugs, which in their entirety accounted for only 21 percent of all drug-induced deaths claimed by ONDCP. Nearly 80 percent of the drug-induced deaths were due to the use of drugs other than the ones declared illegal.

To really put this data into perspective, consider that during those 20 years, over 42.8 million Americans died. That means that all "drug-induced" causes account for less than one-half of one percent of all deaths, while those involving illegal drugs account for a mere one-tenth of one percent of all deaths. Meanwhile, deaths from alcohol-induced causes tallied 378,960, or nine-tenths of one percent of all deaths. Clearly, the legality of a given substance has precious little to do with how "dangerous" it is in terms of direct mortality.

In the same 20-year period, 30,150 people died from choking on food, and another 37,246 died from choking on things other than food. An additional 38,328 committed suicide via inhaling car exhaust and 80,959 committed suicide via hanging. Especially in these days of economic woes and budget crunches, the time surely has arrived when we need to take a more serious look at the "horrors" of drug use and our approach toward dealing with them.

From where I stand, America's drug war is beginning to look like one of the dumbest endeavors ever undertaken by mankind. Every dollar spent in the futile attempt to prevent people from doing things to themselves is a dollar that could be much better spent on just about anything else.

Written Mar 12, 2003

* (Oct 4, 2004) -- At least, they used to. As of the 2003 National Drug Control Strategy, the ONDCP produces a separate document containing all the data tables.

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